All the gore and horror you can experience while remaining safe… but are you?
Natalie (Amy Forsyth) is in town from college to catch up with her friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) to unhappily discover an old rival as her replacement roommate, Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), along with sudden plans to attend something called Hell Fest, a travelling Halloween show. With the promise of a possible hookup with old crush Gavin (Roby Attal), Natalie gives in and is joined by Asher (Matt Mercurio) and Quinn (Christian James) with VIP passes to the best parts of the festival. Unfortunately, the horror attraction includes an unwelcome guest: a participant preferring to murder attendees for real.
The concept seems plausible: someone using a Halloween theme park as their very real serial hunting ground — just mix in a few young adults looking to get drunk, scared, and/or laid before transgression and karma set in. The expectation, of course, is that such places are inherently safe — someone good is always watching out for anyone really bad — while creating the illusion for paying guests to pretend they’re potential victims in a fake horror story. Will the end result be a modern-day Friday the 13th or stumble into the footsteps of another April Fool’s Day?
“The Walking Dead” producer Gale Anne Hurd and composer Bear McCreary lend their talents to the production, so there’s pedigree involved, including a Tony Todd cameo (shades of Hatchet!) for two scenery-chewing minutes. Of the three young women in the main cast, Bex Taylor-Klaus owns it, acting as both the surrogate for horror fans in the audience and the wise-cracker to send up the signal flare whenever the train actually jumps the tracks. For what’s essentially a high-concept slasher film, the cast is above-board when it come to evoking a spooked atmosphere, essential for any real scares to work; the finished product looks far more expensive than the $5 million it reportedly cost to shoot. Blending both real and fake scares with the coolest Halloween mazes you’ve never seen, characters are kept on their toes as much as the target audience wishes they were in there with them.
There’s a bit of drag checking off the mandatory setup scenes, the typical group o’ friends hinting at drama issues before going off to have a good time; they can’t all be The Cabin in the Woods. Fortunately, Taylor-Klaus and the cast liven up the scenes so naturally that the lazy setup can be glossed over enough to get to the blood-and-guts fun. Actual tension is generated solely via acting rather than relying on just effects and jump scares. The production also embraces an R rating without resorting to gratuitous nudity or other typical exploitation, a clear sign of the times but sacrificing nothing for it. McCreary’s soundtrack evokes A Nightmare on Elm Street with bits of carnival mayhem.
Aside from the attraction being too big and too elaborate to be a mere travelling show (read: what’s shown is way cooler than most and never all included in the same place), the biggest issue is a lack of minimal safety measures in the park itself. Sorry, screen writers: it’s hard to suspend disbelief when every real-life monster maze has illuminated marked exits (required by law) and chicken (out) chutes for quick escapes or emergency evacuations. When attendees bite off more than they can chew, professional haunted attractions employ one or more uniformed attendants with unlit flashlights in each maze to help folks out in case anything goes wrong… up to and including removing drunken and disorderly patrons who get grabby or become violent. Let’s give credit where it’s due: if this were a real situation, our villain likely would have been busted within minutes of entering the park; don’t try this at your hometown haunt, kids.
Nitpicks aside, if this place did exist — exactly as presented here — horror fans would flock to it like starved zombies. A few Six Flags parks are doing a tie-in with the film this year, but it’s unlikely they’ll go anywhere near this far to emulate the film. If there was ever a movie that could get away with someone dressed like the killer jumping up and running through the theater during the film to freak people out, this would be it; consider that a free suggestion for the inevitable sequel.
Hell Fest is rated R for horror violence, language including some sexual references, and possible daddy issues.
Three skull recommendation out of four.
Slightly spoilery sidenote: in keeping with tropes, the “good girl” played by Amy Forsyth has an enjoyable if predicatable turn in Final Girl fashion. What’s noteworthy is the performance; while some characters like this spend their time looking pretty and boring (read: victim-in-progress), Forsyth offers hints that she’ll go dark side if pushed while still making it feel like a believable progression. Imagine a sequel where she changes her major to criminal psychology and starts tracking her would-be nemesis down Sarah Conner-style. That could make for an interesting sequel… free idea, y’all!